Fall/Winter 2015 Vol. 15 Number 2

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Gray Matters

New Report Identifies Ways to Help Stay Mentally Sharp

People often forget things -- a name, where they put their keys, or a phone number. These moments of forgetfulness can be dismissed as a minor inconvenience at 25 or 35, but they can evolve into a major source of worry at 55 or 65. A new report from the Academies finds that one of the most challenging health issues older adults encounter is the gradual and variable change in mental functions that occurs naturally as people age and is not part of a neurological disease such as Alzheimer's.

Just like any other part of the body, the aging process affects the brain. Known as "cognitive aging," the type and rate of change can vary widely among individuals. Some will experience very few, if any, effects, while others may experience shifts in their memory, speed of processing information, and problem solving, learning, and decision-making abilities.

The committee that carried out the study and wrote the report proposed three top actions healthy individuals can take to help maintain an agile brain and optimal cognitive function as they age.

  • Be physically active.
  • Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
  • Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional.

Communities, nonprofit organizations, and businesses can play a significant role in developing partnerships and programs to help aging individuals take charge of their cognitive health, the committee said. Health care professionals should prepare to provide guidance to older adults and their families as the patient population ages.

In addition, the report emphasizes that cognitive aging has significant impacts and widespread consequences on society, including financial losses. Older adults lose an estimated $2.9 billion a year, directly and indirectly, to financial fraud. The committee called for the improvement of programs and services used by older adults, including those in financial institutions, to help them avoid exploitation, optimize independence, and make sound decisions. For example, the financial services industries and relevant state and federal agencies should implement systems approaches, training, and laws and regulations to help verify that financial transactions are not fraudulent or the result of older adults' diminished decision-making capacity or undue influence.

-- Jennifer Walsh

Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action. Committee on the Public Health Dimensions of Cognitive Aging, Board on Health Sciences Policy, Institute of Medicine (2015, 330 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-36862-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $64.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Dan G. Blazer, J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. The study was sponsored by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and National Institute on Aging), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Retirement Research Foundation, and AARP.

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